Nothing is sweet about industry attack on soda tax

Soft drinks at a San Francisco market.
Soft drinks at a San Francisco market. The Associated Press

Here’s a challenge. Do you have a sugar bowl? Good. Go get a teaspoon. Now fill that teaspoon with sugar and eat it. Down the hatch.

Now do it again. And again. Again. C’mon, it’s just sugar! Again. Do it 10 times. There. You’ve just gagged down the solid-food equivalent of one Pepsi. And that’s just the 12-ounce can.

Sugary sodas are terrible, health-wise. The more you drink, the fatter and more Type 2 diabetes-prone you get. And Type 2 diabetes is lifelong, expensive and lethal. That’s why public health advocates have sought for years to reduce consumption by raising the price of the vice with a soda tax.

But sugary sodas also are profitable and delicious, and, for some families, the one sweet indulgence they can afford to give their children at mealtime. That’s why, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the beverage industry has successfully spent more than $100 million over the past five years fighting soda taxes in states and cities from Hawaii to Maine.

Now two November ballot measures in the Bay Area are confronting the beverage industry with a fresh Pepsi challenge: Beat back a two-cent soda tax in San Francisco while simultaneously beating back a 1-cent tax in Berkeley.

Can it be done?

Plenty of people are watching, on both sides of the issue. If the two most politically correct, foodie-dominated communities in the nation can’t pass a tax on junk drinks, probably no one can tax them.

On the other hand, social movements that start in the Bay Area have a way of gathering momentum. So if the beverage industry can be forced to choke down even one of those two measures, it could be a whole new contest, nationally.

We are skeptical of levies that single out one product for taxation. One-off taxes are regressive and don’t necessarily work.

Chocolate milk and apple juice are loaded with sugar, too, and they’re not part of either of these measures. Why not? Their tooth-rotting powers must be less objectionable to the rich moms in the Berkeley hills than the beverages of choice of their nannies.

Also, the Berkeley tax would go into the general fund, unlike San Francisco’s, which is earmarked for health programs. That distinction gives the Berkeley tax an edge, because it only requires a simple majority, as opposed to San Francisco’s two-thirds requirement. But a tax on a vice ought to address its problem and not simply disappear into an amorphous pot.

That said, attempts at educating the public have gone nowhere. A soda labeling law that might have more effectively warned consumers was crushed this summer by state lawmakers who then celebrated at a PepsiCo-sponsored reception right there in the Capitol.

So we, too, will be watching the Bay Area beverage smackdown with interest. At last count, the industry had spent some $8 million in San Francisco and nearly $1.7 million in Berkeley on ads and mailers. The challengers, put together, have spent less than $500,000.

Game on. Anybody want a cold drink?